|Fight for Freedom WTHR-TV (wthr.com)
Dusty Turner was a star athlete who grew up in Bloomington, but he's spent the last eight years behind bars - convicted of a murder he says he didn't commit. Now, there is new evidence that could help win his release. This is a story about one man's fight for freedom. The story was reported by Roger Harvey and photographed and edited by Bill Ditton.
For a mother, there's nothing worse than losing a child.
"It was like he had died and it was very difficult," said Linda Summitt.
Summit's son, Dusty Turner, was a good student and an athlete. He won numerous awards and helped lead Bloomington South High School to the state swimming finals. After high school, he decided to become a Navy SEAL - a member of the military's elite forces. His mother was extremely proud.
But, during Turner's training in Virginia in 1995, something terrible happened. Summitt found out about it in a phone call.
"He told me he had witnessed a murder and that there were going to be a lot of questions asked of him," she said.
By that time, in Virginia, the media was in a frenzy. A smart, beautiful, 21-year-old pre-med student from Georgia - Jennifer Evans - was missing. Her parents made an emotional plea on television.
"And Jennifer, if you are out there anywhere listening, we love you and we want you back home," her mother said.
Investigators found Evans' body nine days later, decaying in the woods.
After witnesses reported seeing Evans with two men, police arrested Dusty Turner and Billy Joe Brown. They were Navy SEAL candidates - partners trained for war and taught to protect each other.
But both men blamed the other for the murder. The only other person who knew what had happened was Jennifer - and she was dead.
A jury convicted both men of murder in separate trials. With no parole in Virginia, they will spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Attorney Dick Brydges represented Turner during the trial. All along he was convinced it was Brown, not Turner, who killed Evans.
"I don't think I have ever seen anybody that fit the profile less than Dusty Turner did for murder," Brydges said.
He said Turner panicked when Brown choked Evans to death as the three sat in his car. Turner drove away, helped Brown dump Jennifer Evans' body and didn't call police.
"That night what he did wrong... is he helped dispose of the body," Brydges said.
That crime, the attorney contends, is accessory after the fact. In Virginia, that's punishable by a year in jail - nowhere near the 82-year sentence for murder Turner is now serving.
"I could look in his eyes and look into his heart and I knew he was telling me the truth and I knew he did not kill Jennifer," Summitt said.
Brown never admitted he killed Evans. But now, eight years later, Brown has finally decided to tell the truth.
In a sworn statement from prison, Brown said he blamed Turner for the killing because he was angry Turner told police about the murder and where they could find Evans' body.
"Honest to God, it sounds crazy as can be," Brown said in the taped statement. "But the honest-to-God truth - one minute everything was fine and the next minute I killed her."
"Well, I was overcome with joy of course, it was an answer to my prayers," Summit said of Brown's confession. But her joy quickly turned to disappointment.
It turns out Virginia has the nation's toughest law against new evidence being heard in court after a conviction. So even though Brown confessed to the crime, Turner can't get a new trial. His only hope now is to petition the governor for a pardon.
Attorney David Hargett is putting together a clemency petition with the new information that the killer has now come forward. He said he will be filing the petition in the next few weeks.
"He has a legitimate chance, I believe, in this case even though the odds are definitely against us," Hargett said.
Those odds don't discourage a mother who wants her son back. Linda Summitt said she is as committed now as she was eight years ago to prove Turner is innocent.
"I know he will be home," she said. "I can't wait to have a big party for him and have everyone here and just rejoice."
Outside a Virginia Beach bar in 1995, three lives changed forever.
Jennifer Evans died that night. She was last seen with Dusty Turner and Billy Joe Brown, two men training to be Navy Seals, members of the military's elite fighting forces.
"The ingredients were all there for a complete injustice," Turner recalled. "They were out to get whoever they could get."
Turner, a star athlete who grew up in Bloomington, maintained from the beginning that he did not kill Evans, a pre-med student from Georgia.
"I am locked up as an innocent man and this is in the same country which I was willing to fight and perhaps die for," Turner said in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News.
Turner and Brown blamed each other for Evans' death. Two juries convicted them both of murder. Since then, Turner has been behind bars in a Virginia prison. All along, he's known what really happened that night in Virginia Beach, but he's had no proof.
But now, something unexpected has happened and it's given Turner reason to hope. Eight years after the crime, Brown confessed to the murder in a taped interview with an attorney.
"Honest to God, it sounds crazy as can be," Brown said. "But the honest-to-God truth - one minute everything was fine and the next minute I killed her."
Turner said the confession was a surprise at first.
"(But) I can look back on it now and I realize he had to," he said of Brown.
The reason? Turner said in prison, all you do is think. He's played that night in his mind a thousand times, and he's convinced Brown's conscience was eating him up and forced him to tell the truth.
Brown's confession, though, doesn't mean Turner will get out of prison soon. That's because Turner is serving an 82-year sentence with no parole.
"(Brown) is the only person that knows anything about this case that can exonerate Dusty Turner," said David Hargett, and attorney who is preparing Turner's petition to the governor asking for clemency now that Brown has confessed.
Turner knows that people who hear about his case will fault him for helping dump Evans' body, even if he didn't kill her.
"You are right, and I am not saying what I did that evening was the right thing, but what I am saying is I did not harm whatsoever... Jennifer Evans," he said.
Instead, Turner and his attorney contend he is guilty only of accessory after the fact. The punishment for that is just one year in jail. Turner is now 28 - he's been in prison for eight years.
If he had the opportunity to talk directly to the governor, Turner said he would ask him to look not just at the confession, but at his entire case.
"Sure the confession from Billy Brown is great, but look at the whole case," he said. "Anybody who looks into the case without even knowing Billy Brown confessed will realize I am not suppose to be here."
The Virginia Department of Corrections says Turner has been a model inmate. He keeps busy by drawing sketches and waiting for the day he can return to Bloomington.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Turner said. "I am just hoping it is sooner than later."